An interview with A-dae Romero-Briones
A conversation about the need to decolonize regenerative agriculture by acknowledging Indigenous Peoples’ land stewardship.
Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that build healthy soil, increase biodiversity, and improve watersheds. It can also mitigate climate change by drawing down carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil where it increases fertility and drought resilience and reduces erosion.
A-dae Romero-Briones (Cochiti/Kiowa) is Director of Programs for Nourishing Native Food and Health at the First Nations Development Institute in Longmont, Colorado, USA, which provides grants and technical assistance to strengthen Native American communities and economies. Arty Mangan, Director of Bioneers’ Restorative Food Systems Program, interviewed A-dae on her views about the injustices that colonization inflicted on Native people and the need to decolonize regenerative agriculture from an Indigenous perspective by acknowledging Indigenous Peoples’ land stewardship.
ARTY MANGAN: A-dae, what are the differences between an Indigenous and a non-Indigenous perspective on agriculture?
A-DAE ROMERO-BRIONES: That is a loaded question because the whole idea of agriculture puts a contemporary spin on the conversation. Agriculture is usually the point in our American historical narrative where Indigenous people are separated from the rest of civilization. Agriculture is usually the divide where people talk about civilization and non-civilization, or farmers versus hunter-gatherers. Whenever I get questions about agriculture, I always feel a little squirmy because I realize most people are coming from the perspective of the American historical narrative where Indigenous people are excluded.
There are stark differences between agricultural systems in Indigenous communities and agricultural systems in contemporary communities. The first being the idea of collective resources. In an Indigenous community, there are some things that just cannot be commodified — land, water, air, animals, even the health of the people, all of which are considered collective resources. Collective resources require collective and community management. Contemporary agriculture doesn’t have the same base. In contemporary agriculture, there are individualized, commodified resources available for purchase, like land and water.
Collective resources require collective and community management.
It requires different skill sets when you’re managing collective resources versus individualized land plots. There are a lot more specialized skills in the individual land plot scenario. In collective resources management, a variety of skills are needed because you’re not only dealing with people, but you’re also dealing with relationships and how to balance those relationships.
The biggest difference in contemporary agriculture versus Indigenous agriculture is the idea of money. In an Indigenous community if you had a person who hunted, who could plant a seed, who knew how to gather, then you had access to food. In an American or contemporary agricultural system, the way to access those things is through money.
It’s important to keep in mind that food is an indicator of the health of a society. In an Indigenous community, food shortages mean something within that society is awry and has to be fixed. But when you have the extra barrier of food access through money, food no longer serves as that indicator. When that happens, people are disconnected from society and from the collective resources that go into making food.
AM: How would you define regenerative agriculture?
AR-M: At the heart of the concept of regeneration is wanting to renew and correct some of the missteps that have taken us to the point of environmental damage and degradation. We want to create systems that are rebirthing a healthy environment. In order to do that, we need to include Indigenous people. So, my definition of regenerative agriculture is one that includes a true history of land and the environment and people’s health that starts prior to contact.
My definition of regenerative agriculture is one that includes a true history of land and the environment and people’s health that starts prior to contact.
AM: What does it mean to decolonize agriculture and how does that pertain to regenerative agriculture?
AR-M: In the American narrative, agriculture was the divide and allowed for a lot of injustice that occurred with land theft, slavery, and indentured servitude. The conversation about decolonizing agriculture is about examining the settlers’ agricultural system and concepts that allow for those injustices to happen. When we talk about decolonizing regenerative agriculture, we are looking at that initial definition. I’m asking people to stop and say, “Look at how we think about agriculture in America and think about whether it includes Indigenous people.” The answer is it doesn’t. It doesn’t include Indigenous people because only colonizers and settlers are considered farmers in America. That means that when people are talking about correcting agriculture to a time when it was better, we’re going back to that definition of when settlers came to America and supposedly started agriculture. Before that, people weren’t considered agriculturalists. Before that, they were considered hunters and gatherers, which has its own connotations.
To decolonize regenerative agriculture, we have to go back and think about the times before European settlement and contact when there was more of an ecological balance in the environment that was a result of Indigenous practices; that’s the model we’re now trying to regenerate.
To decolonize regenerative agriculture, we have to go back and think about the times before European settlement and contact when there was more of an ecological balance in the environment that was a result of Indigenous practices.
AM: In your writings and talks, you seem to challenge the idea of mimicking nature, which many people in the regenerative agriculture movement use as a guiding principle. Isn’t nature our best teacher?
AR-M: Yes. I think nature is our best teacher. But it’s a fallacy to think that we can imitate a system that has been in existence for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. These are systems that have been perfected because of relationships with other living beings, plants, animals, the land, and everything that surrounds it; those relationships take time.
Natural systems have unknowns, and man cannot know everything. We have to have reverence and respect for those unknowns.
I think one of the most important lessons in Indigenous epistemology is that natural systems have unknowns, and that man cannot know everything. We have to have reverence and respect for those unknowns. There are processes in the trees that grow, in the animals that migrate that we just will not know. We should respect in reverence and allow those unknowns to happen. We can observe it, knowing that we can probably aid in the health of it, knowing that there is something just beyond our reach, and knowing that there is something greater out there that we must respect.
AM: The late Joseph Campbell, professor and author of books on mythology, said that Indigenous Peoples refer to the natural world and all in it as “thou,” as sacred. He said that Western culture views the natural world as an “it” that can be exploited and processed. Can you talk more about reverence versus exploitation?
AR-M: There is an assumption that man has command of everything around us, or we are on a higher plane than the living things around us. To me, again, that’s a fallacy. The trees and the plants and the animals are much older than we are. There is so much that we have to learn. Rather than being burdened with that task, the idea that we respect the unknown helps people deal with it.
It leaves room at the table for processes to happen because, if we knew everything and if we could mimic nature, there’s no imagination that’s needed, there’s no room for surprises, and there’s no room for some of the beauty that happens by happenstance. Some of the greatest joys come from the understanding of reverence and the sacred.
Some of the greatest joys come from the understanding of reverence and the sacred.
This idea of exploitation puts us in the position that we have to manage everything with the right to commodify things that should never be commodified. We can’t sell everything. I think we learn through our relationships with other humans that not everything is meant to be sold.
AM: When Europeans came to North America they erected fences. How did fences disrupt Indigenous people’s ability to feed themselves by hunting and gathering food freely in their regions?
AR-M: In the 1930s, and again in the 1960s, the Natural Resources Conservation Agency came in and put in all these elk- and deer-proof fences. They said, you need to put fences around your fields so you can keep out all the animals that are going to eat up your crops. My grandpa’s response was “We’re farmers. When we plant corn, we don’t plant just for us, we plant for the environment around us too. If the deer are coming, it’s because they’re hungry. So, that means, I need to plant more.” We’re adjusting to our environment rather than trying to keep everything out. So, this idea of a fence is just antithetical to the way we view the world.
Recently, the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico had a lawsuit against the Forest Service. The caldera in the Jemez Mountains is surrounded by a fence; it’s in a national preserve. The Pueblo of Jemez said that the caldera has always been sacred to the Jemez people, and they have always had continuous access. But the federal agency said, “There’s a fence there, and it says no trespassing. Are you telling us that the Jemez people have been going over this fence?” The Jemez governor’s response was “I thought that fence was to keep the elk in, not to keep the Indians out.”
AM: Relationships are central to Indigenous ways. For example, you talked about growing corn for the deer. How does Indigenous farming develop relationships and nurture life?
In order to be successful farmers, we have to learn from the beings in that natural environment how to adjust to those environmental changes.
AR-M: When we farm, we’re thinking about natural cycles, and how we can become more embedded into those natural systems. We take the cues from the natural systems, whether that be deer, or insects, or water shortages. In order to be successful farmers, we have to learn from the beings in that natural environment how to adjust to those environmental changes.
It is very much the opposite of what agricultural systems are today, which try to kill everything except the plant that you want to grow. That is so hard for me to understand.
AM: I’ve always felt like one of the big problems with agriculture is that it needs more life, not less. As you describe, the thrust is to kill off the pests, kill off the weeds, destroy and kill and create the monocrop. But the real remedy is more diverse living systems, both above- and below-ground.
AR-M: Absolutely. That’s exactly how I see Indigenous food systems. The Indigenous universal connection is the idea that you need to be part of the natural cycles around you, whether they’re negative or positive. You need to adjust to them. You’re part of that system. You need to become embraced in that system in order to create not only a healthy food system, but also healthy people, a healthy environment, and a happy mental state. I don’t understand the other side. I’ve tried. I’ve studied it to death, and I’m still learning.
You need to be part of the natural cycles around you, whether they’re negative or positive. You need to adjust to them. You’re part of that system.
AM: You wrote, “Indigenous people can look at a landscape and tell if the soil is healthy. They know how to see the health of the soil without needing a microscope.” Is regenerative agriculture a place where traditional Indigenous knowledge and science can complement each other?
AR-M: In regenerative agriculture, the science needs to follow healthy systems. Indigenous people are stewarding healthy systems. Rather than trying to prove or disprove the functionality of these systems, science needs to take their cues and use scientific methods to explain the importance and the positives of these stewarded lands. There are many reports that say carbon sequestration is happening in Indigenous stewarded lands. In places like the Amazon or here in California where the Mono people are still doing traditional burns, or places along the rivers where Indigenous people are stewarding the salmon and the salmon burial grounds, those are some of the healthiest soils. Places that have been stewarded and kept by California Indigenous basket weavers are the places where soil is probably at its healthiest. Science should work to explain to the Western scientific world why these stewarded places are so important and why these practices should be continued.
In historical terms, science has been used to dispossess a lot of Indigenous Peoples of land. So, this idea that science is objective is kind of a fallacy to me because I think science is very much subject to political whims.
AM: You have said that agroecology is a non-Indigenous term; it’s an interpretation of an Indigenous way of farming, but not an interpretation by Indigenous people. How do Native voices become authentically included in the regenerative agriculture conversation?
AR-M: Invite them to the table. When I say agroecology is an interpretation, it’s because agroecology practices are practices without the people. Many of these other disciplines take practices of Indigenous people, but don’t include the people or don’t include their stories.
For instance, my grandpa would take me to the field and tell a story about the last time he saw conditions like this, and what his grandparents did. Those stories are just as important as the practices or the hoe that I pick up. Those stories are the guideposts that need to be laid out before we even start digging into the soil. Indigenous people need room to tell those stories.
The same goes for traditional ecological knowledge. Really, what does that mean? It’s a very broad term. Cochiti people did things differently from Pomo people. Pomo people do different things from Navajo people. Navajo people do different things from Kiowa people.
Each of these peoples have their own practices and stories that go along with these practices. They need that whole spectrum, the full body, the full room, and the time to tell those stories along with their practices, which currently is hard to find in any of these multiple disciplines, whether it be agroecology, permaculture, or traditional ecological knowledge.
AM: What needs to happen to make the regenerative agriculture community more inclusive?
AR-M: We need to challenge, as a community, the historical narrative of the USA that begins with this idea that the farmer is the true American, and that the colonizers’ agriculture is really how our continent was started. It started long before that event happened in our country, and regenerative agriculture needs to challenge that narrative that has led us astray thus far.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally posted on the Bioneers website. Republished in this form with permission.
Arty Mangan is Director of the Restorative Food Systems Program at Bioneers. His current focus is on agriculture as a climate solution. He conducted a series of video interviews with Indigenous and Hispano farmers on biocultural crops and traditional farming for the Dreaming New Mexico Project.